An Adolescent System

Capitalism’s basic mechanism is sometimes boiled down to “Find a need and fill it.”*

Growing up, as I often teach my students, basically means, “You don’t always get what you want.”

If capitalism seeks to profit by filling every need (and inventing new ones, or trying to fill them faster), and if maturity means setting aside what you want, for a time, for someone else’s sake, or forever, then doesn’t it follow that capitalism is adolescent?

Some needs are best filled slowly, some needs are best filled only in part, and some needs are best not satisfied at all. But with the market’s efficiency, capitalism will try to fill the first category rapidly, the second category fully, and the third category quietly.

To say “I want everything and I want it now” is classic teenager behavior. But instead of advising us, “You can’t always get what you want,” capitalism says, “Absolutely! And here are more things to want, and ways to get them faster! Just type in your PIN here…” In fact, in doing some research for this piece, I came across many comments that “find a need and fill it” is bad business advice: the real money is in filling wants. Capitalism will even go so far as to suggest, “If you don’t get what you want right now, then you are a failure.” Capitalism does not understand self-sacrifice, and has forgotten anything it knew about delayed gratification.

Growing up means, in part, controlling one’s desires. This was something our wiser teachers tried to get into our heads. But capitalism would much rather our desires controlled us, to profit by us. The most insidious form of capitalism, after all, is to make money off never-ending desires: promise to fulfill a need/want, and not quite deliver, so that there’s more need tomorrow. This is why the drug trade is capitalism perfected: create a want so strong, so controlling, that a person will give you everything, including selling their children, in order to get it. And they’ll come back tomorrow for more.

Of course, since we are all participants in a capitalist system to one degree or another, capitalism is us.

So let’s pause for a moment, shall we?

What do we want… and what do we need?

I have been experimenting with paring back my desires. Some of my most heartfelt wants are for things that we capitalists have always promised each other but never could quite deliver: Time. Love. Peace. I also want justice, but I can’t remember capitalism ever promising that. I’ve wanted glory; I’m learning better, though my desire to leave a mark on the world is no less—I’m just much less excited about getting the credit. But let’s turn to the tangible. I want books; I’ve been selling off my library. I want music; I never buy albums, and have learned ways to borrow. I want games; I don’t buy new ones, and I’m contemplating throwing out or giving away the ones I have. I want TV shows: instead I watch online, or just tell myself no. I want a nice place to live—quiet, well-lit, safe, with a good kitchen. I’ve settled for a place to live, period. I want good, healthy, clean food; I’m still spending a lot of money on that, but I don’t buy meat even though I will eat it, and I’m starting to figure out how I can grow some of my own food.

I mean to control my own wants, needs, and desires as much as I can—because that’s what growing up means. I think most mature people would agree with me, and I hope they start to find similar ways to cut back the wants, scale back the desires, and focus on what needs to happen and what’s most important in life. If enough of us start to do that, we can begin to sort out the adolescents from the adults… and I think age would have nothing to do with it.

 

* The quote is attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale, but it was possibly popularized by Kaiser Cement Co., among others.

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